ATRA spokesman: Court budget cuts might be good for California

By Chris Rizo | Jan 7, 2010

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline)-Budget cuts to California courts might just be what needs to happen to force judges to address the mass of frivolous lawsuits filed in the state, the American Tort Reform Association said.

Responding to a recent study commissioned by the Los Angeles County Superior Court indicating that there could be dire economic consequences if court budgets are cut, a spokesman for ATRA said just the opposite might prove to be the case.

"In case judges and policymakers there haven't noticed, the once Golden State is now all but bankrupt as job-seekers and tax revenue-generating businesses continue to flee, driven in part by runaway civil litigation," ATRA communications director Darren McKinney said. "Even as the state's population dwindles, the number of costly, parasitic lawsuits continues to grow. Thus one could reasonably argue that smaller civil court budgets might actually prove to be a silver lining in California's otherwise ominously dark fiscal cloud."

California officials face a nearly $20 billion revenue shortfall -- $6.6 billion in the current fiscal year and $13.3 billion in the 12 months beginning July 1. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will announce his state budget proposal Friday.

In his letter-to-the-editor submission to the National Law Journal, McKinney said if the average duration of civil cases grows from 18 months to more than four years, as the Los Angeles County study forecasts, "it stands to reason that many fewer nuisance and frivolous lawsuits will be brought in the first place."

He said with smaller court budgets, jurists will be "appropriately" forced to dismiss the bulk of frivolous lawsuits immediately.

"Furthermore, it would be a wonderfully positive economic development for the state if thousands of bright and hard-working personal injury lawyers were starved into more truly productive career choices as the state also could then shut down a few of its very expensive law schools. A virtuous cycle would ensue," McKinney wrote.

In its annual report on states' judicial landscapes, the American Tort Reform Foundation said California is on the verge of earning the dubious distinction of being a "judicial hellhole."

"Poorly reasoned California court decisions have placed the state's citizens and business owners in jeopardy of expanded liability. California businesses are concerned that they will be unfairly hit with consumer and disabled-access lawsuits by those who have chosen litigation as a lifestyle," the 68-page ATRF report said.

California's legal climate ranks in the bottom 10 of states. The state was ranked 44th in an annual survey by Harris Interactive of states' legal climates from the perspective of in-house corporate counsel around the nation.

The American Tort Reform Foundation's report also said trial lawyers have used the state's unfair legal climate to their advantage.

"Plaintiffs lawyers have gamed the system to take advantage of procedural rules, and brand-name product manufacturers find themselves on the hook for injuries from competing generic products," the ATRF report said.

In his State of the State address Thursday, Schwarzenegger announced that tort reform would be one of his top five priorities to help get the sputtering California economy going again.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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